Too Much

Little Science, Big Science

by Derek J. De Solla Price
Columbia University Press, $4.50

So far, it has been the humanists and theologians who have been pessimistic: they claim to detect changes in the moral temper, a radical break in history. But the scientists have for the most part remained cheerful. Or if they have been pessimistic, it has not been for science itself, but for the fact that men of affairs have made such poor use of science.

This little book by the Avalon Professor of History of Science at Yale changes all that: science is in crisis too, and many of us will say, thank God, we had suspected as much all along. Professor Price delivered this book in the form of four lectures at Brookhaven National Laboratory. It might well, and not at all sensationally, have been titled, “The Coming Crisis of Science,” and what he means by that is just what Marxist critics used to mean by the Coming Crisis of Capitalism; a crisis in growth, occasioned by internal contradictions. He detects, to begin with, certain peculiarities in the pattern of scientific growth, and argues that science will be unable to continue growing at its present rate. As science in effect approaches the end of the three-hundred-year period in which it has transformed all the conditions of life, certain institutional peculiarities in the operations of science itself are becoming manifest. Professor Price formally remains optimistic: but his optimism is like that of a pagan historian who might have traced the decline of the classical world, only to end by saying: But who knows what wonderful possibilities might succeed it?

Professor Price’s arguments derive entirely from statistical data. He has graphed the broad growth of science, as measured by numbers of scientists, scientific societies, of scientific journals and articles and the incidence of distinguished scientists. And his graphs without forcing the point clearly reveal a number of mathematical characteristics that science shares with other growing institutions. The rate of growth of science since the 1660s, when the appearance of scientific societies, of scientific journals and measurable numbers of scientists permit Dr. Price’s type of analysis, has been exponential. That is to say, the rate of growth is constant, as in the case of compound interest. We are aware of the awful power of steady rates of growth as demonstrated in such stories as that of the man who asked the Shah for only one grain of rice on the first square of the chessboard, provided he double it on the second, and double those on the fourth, and so on. Science, regardless of how it is measured, has grown in this way. Science “doubles” every ten or fifteen years. If we count only really very good scientific work or scientists, it “doubles” every twenty years. (This produces such oddities as the fact that most scientists and most scientific work are recent, and since the “doubling” rate has remained constant, this has been true from the beginning. Clearly, if the mass of science “doubles” every ten or fifteen years, a man who…

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